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Suppose the U.S. House of Representatives' 435 seats are narrowly divided something like 220-215 between the two major parties. Normally, the majority party chooses the Speaker of the House.

But suppose the majority party has three candidates for speaker, A, B, and C, and the minority party prefers one of them. Can the minority party then back one of the three candidates from the other party giving him or her the needed majority, when the majority party can't agree among itself? Conversely, has there ever been a situation in history where (in the above example) three members of Congress defected from the majority and helped elect a House speaker from the minority party?

Or is it the case where only the majority party gets to elect a speaker, even when the person commands only a plurality of the vote?

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  • Just an extra note: Speaker of the House is defined in the Constitution. And the US Constitution did not take political parties into account. So, for any office defined in the Constitution, there will be no party requirements.
    – trlkly
    Jan 27 at 22:31

3 Answers 3

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All that matters for electing the speaker is that a majority of votes is won by a candidate. It doesn't matter what party the voters belong to in determining the winner.

In order to get elected to the position of speaker of the house a candidate needs a majority of the votes cast. When voting members have the option of voting for a candidate or voting present which each vote as present reducing the amount of votes needed to win.

How many votes are needed to win the House speaker election?

It is possible to win the speakership without hitting 217 in this Congress, but in order to do so, a candidate would have to coax some of those in opposition to change their votes from "no" to "present." Measures are passed in the House with a majority of those who cast a vote.

For instance, McCarthy won the speakership in January on a vote of 216-212, convincing enough of his GOP colleagues who had voted against him to support his bid. The six remaining Republicans who withheld their support for McCarthy up to the final ballot — Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Eli Crane of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Bob Good of Virginia and Matt Rosendale of Montana — voted present.

Faced with a similarly small majority in 2021, Rep. Nancy Pelosi also won her final speakership with 216 votes. Five Democrats either voted for someone else or voted present, and all of the Republicans voted for McCarthy.

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  • The OP is specifically asking about the case where the minority + majority faction is enough to reach the majority of votes cast.
    – Bobson
    Jan 25 at 17:16
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    @Bobson The also includes an option about a plurality instead of a majority which is what I based my answer on.
    – Joe W
    Jan 25 at 17:19
  • Majority of votes could maybe explained earlier in the answer. It seems a majority means more yes than no votes and voting "present" doesn't count. Jan 25 at 18:35
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Wikipedia has a list of speaker elections that you might find interesting.

Minority "defecting": many times in early congress. One example would be 1809 when Joseph Varnum (Democrat-Republican) was elected on the second ballot.

Majority "defecting": In 1839, Robert T Hunter (Whig) was elected on the 11th ballot, with votes from of 7 South Carolina Democrats. Democrats had a 125-117 majority.

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Question:

Can a "minority" party elect, or at least choose the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?

It's a simple majority vote of members in attendance. So a minority party could win such a vote. It's possible. But in reality it's akin to a cardinal sin in the House of Representative for a congressmen to break with their party on the speaker vote. The vote determines which party is in the majority and which party is going to organize and control congress for that term. So no, it won't ever happen.

For example Democrat Jim Traficant voted for Republican Dennis Hastert in 2001 for speaker. The Republicans were in the majority Hastert won by 16 votes. So Traficant's vote was meaningless and farcical. Before the vote everybody understood Hastert was going to win. Still the Democratic party stripped Traficant of his seniority and refused to give him any committee assignments for voting with the majority party. Which is akin to a death sentence. So breaking with your party on a speaker vote is a big deal.

Speaker of the United States House of Representatives

Representatives are free to vote for someone other than the candidate nominated by their party but generally do not, as the outcome of the election effectively demonstrates which party has the majority and consequently will organize the House.

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  • That assumes that a caucus is a group of members of Congress who agree to vote for the nominee of the caucus to be Speaker. But that does not always happen: see January 2023 and October 2023
    – Henry
    Jan 25 at 19:12
  • @Henry, Jan and Oct 2023 is not relevant to this question. Those are examples of a political party selecting their candidate for speaker. Not an example of a third party or minority party becoming or electing a speaker. In neither case did the GOP candidate get any minority or third party votes.
    – JMS
    Jan 25 at 20:32
  • I would not say the ballots on the floor of the House were "examples of a political party selecting their candidate for speaker". The GOP candidate was selected by the caucus before the votes, and then several members of the caucus immediately and repeatedly voted publicly for somebody else. In many other countries, that would lead to expulsion or suspension from the caucus.
    – Henry
    Jan 25 at 22:48
  • @henry True, however; no Democrat nor Republican crossed party lines to vote outside there party. So literally what occurred was the Republican majority was trying to decide who they would support as speaker.
    – JMS
    Jan 26 at 15:55
  • @JMS: The question is about a scenario where the minority party vote decides between several candidates from the majority party. It doesn't result in electing any member of the minority party. And having the vote of the majority party split (but not crossing party lines) is a sufficient condition.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 26 at 17:47

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